Software Models Old Realities

Do you remember that long list of requirements that defined the project to create this application or that? What these are was a definition of “reality” — as it was understood at the time — for the organization.

There’s a well-known story, that of a major insurance company and its payroll. Back in the mid-1800s, when pay was in cash, the company avoided handling coins by keeping track of amounts less than a dollar, rounding up to the next dollar in terms of payment at 51¢, and keeping track of amounts overpaid or owing between pay weeks. This, in turn, was carried over into their accounting machine-driven payroll, and finally into their home-grown payroll application.

A practice such as this, which wasn’t needed once pay was issued as a cheque (and later, as a direct bank deposit), hung on for years after its time partly because, for anyone at the company, this was reality — and partly because, at any point in time, any changes kept the requirement to “round up and down between periods” on the table.

As a result, long after others had outsourced payroll, the company hung on, claiming it was “different”. It took an outside intervention to finally eliminate the old reality and remove this requirement.

Now, consider banking systems. One major bank now provides electronic versions of the statements for chequing and savings accounts, rather than mailing these to customers.

Their line of credit accounts — which to the customer look just like any other bank account (and are often used that way, with a chequebook or with Internet banking transfers) — do not offer an electronic statement. Why?

Lines of credit are built off the “loans” application, whereas chequing and savings accounts are built off the “core banking” application.

Note that there is nothing about a line of credit that is different from overdraft capabilities on a chequing account (where there is a negative balance and a maximum negative limit, and an interest assessment made rather than paid), except for the “old reality” that the original lines of credit were loans.

A third form of “old reality” is when a system’s actions now deviate from the actual work practices.

This shows up as manual steps, bridges built from spreadsheets or rekeying of data, etc.

There are insurance systems still in use dating back to batch processing on mainframes, where transactions were keypunched — and certain types of data were converted from alphanumeric characters, such as turning the state code for South Carolina (SC) into a number (e.g. 29) so that the keypuncher could get additional speed by staying on the numeric keypad.

Here we are, fifty years later, with elaborate training programs run for new staff, and aide memoires stuck around each PC screen, to remind people of the conversations. What once was a productivity aid is now a drain.

This is yet another reason why software should not be considered to have an indefinite shelf life and endlessly modified, but rather be expired periodically and replaced.

It allows for old realities to be expunged and replaced with software that models today, not yesterday.

Vendors do this: consider Windows 8’s Metro interface, a complete overhaul of a user experience that hasn’t materially changed since Windows 95. If Microsoft can do it, you can too. You have nothing but old realities that have outlived their usefulness to lose.


About passionateobserver

I am a passionate observer of our society, the economy, and politics. Mostly I don't like much of what I see, so I write as a concerned citizen. To the fray, I bring a background in the philosophy of history, a lifetime's reading, a work history in information technology management, consulting and education.
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2 Responses to Software Models Old Realities

  1. Sig Rinde says:

    Hi Bruce,

    excellent, in particular the title!

    But there is one “old reality” that, if it had a better model, would do wonders – the workflow framework, aka “management”. Organisational hierarchies, budgets, double entry book keeping (the most modern part, only 515 year old), etc. wasting away more than half our time for no direct value creation purposes whatsoever.

    Value creation after all is a flow, a process, so why not go for the core of things and create a better work flow framework now that we have IT? That I’d think would fix a few other minor issues as well…

    The answer to why that has not happened yet could perhaps be that “predictability” has so far been assumed to be a prerequisite, and that does not fit well with the unpredictability of most work flows.


    • Hello, Sig, and thanks for commenting. I’ve been following your work via your blog for several years now and have talked about it with clients (alas, to little effect: they are stuck in the current paradigm).

      You are entirely right that much of what we do in running enterprises is in need of replacement. Double-entry bookkeeping, to take but one example, was a necessity when everything was done by hand. Today, the computer can do as many checks as we care to program in, and so the process appropriate to a manual day is no longer needed. We waste our time, our energy (and our computer cycles) doing things “the old way” that can be handled differently today.

      My friend Bruce Rogow, of the Vivaldi IT Odyssey & Advisory service, likes to say (I think correctly) that “IT has a process myopia”. Decoupling the elements of processes, rather than including use cases for every exception into a rigid structure, would allow for barely repeatable actions to take place — with positive outcomes for innovation, customer service, and saving effort.

      My friend Jon Husband, in his Wirearchy blog, also talks about reforming the hierarchies we have to meld them to peer-based emergent structures, something which which I am in agreement. I would add to that we need to overturn almost all of the human resources apparatus we’ve saddled ourselves with as we do so, or else we will continue to maintain David Bolchover’s “Living Dead” in our work places.

      Your observation about predictability is on the money. When I did my Cognitive Edge accreditation with Dave Snowden, I was seized with the possibility of the less ordered domains for enterprise activity — but, sadly, most people aren’t. They thrive on predictability (a case in point, the mania to simply throw others’ practices at their organization [“best practices”] without thinking through who they are, how they work, what they do, why this might be applicable, and whether the degree of order and integration in the work allows for such a holus bolus injection of foreign approaches.

      Of course, that’s what over-specified packaged software does, too, especially when implemented by a systems integrator or consultant who merely copies what was done “the last time” when doing so.

      Keep up your good work in trying to put a dint in the world of management. I certainly intend to!

      All the best

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